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Ball Hogs and Long Meetings

Listen to an NBA coach during a game and you will often hear him scream something like the following:

Why do coaches have to keep screaming this message?  The answer seems easy.  Basketball players love to shoot.  In other words, many players have trouble resisting their inner ball hog.  Consequently, coaches have to scream a lot.

Academic meetings typically involve less screaming, but the behavior we see in these meetings is surprisingly similar to what we see on a basketball court.  For example, recently I attended a meeting at Southern Utah University.  The meeting began at 4 pm, and 25 minutes later we still hadn’t started on the items that were the actual subject of this gathering.  Instead, numerous people had chimed in on items we supposedly had finished in our previous meeting (and other issues not related to the subject at hand).

On the surface, ball hogs and endless meetings might seem unrelated.  Research, though, indicates that players chucking shots at a basket and people prolonging a meeting with endless comments may actually be a function of something similar.  Specifically, how do we know someone is “competent”?

To see this, let’s first talk about meetings.  A few days ago Stephen Dubner indicated that he “dislikes meetings in general,”  And he proposed that it would be better if we all stood up during meetings.   Although I am sure this could help, maybe it would be better if we understood a root cause of endless meetings.

A couple of years ago Cameron Anderson and Gavin J. Kilduff published a study examining how people in meetings evaluate each other.  Obviously we would like people in meetings to think we are competent.  And one might think, the best way to get people to think you are competent is to just be competent.  But that is not what Anderson and Kilduff found.  In a study of how people in a meeting – a meeting designed to answer math questions — were evaluated by their peers, these authors f0und (as Time reported) that actual competence wasn’t driving evaluations:

Repeatedly, the ones who emerged as leaders and were rated the highest in competence were not the ones who offered the greatest number of correct answers. Nor were they the ones whose SAT scores suggested they’d even be able to. What they did do was offer the most answers — period.

“Dominant individuals behaved in ways that made them appear competent,” the researchers write, “above and beyond their actual competence.” Troublingly, group members seemed only too willing to follow these underqualified bosses. An overwhelming 94% of the time, the teams used the first answer anyone shouted out — often giving only perfunctory consideration to others that were offered.

Think about what this study says about meetings. If I want you to think I am competent, I need to talk.  But if all of us have this same incentive… well, maybe we better be standing.  A sit-down meeting can be endless (or at least seem that way).

Okay, what does this have to do with basketball?

(Photo: Matthew D. Britt)

Consider the case of Carmelo Anthony.  For many people, Anthony is obviously the New York Knicks best player.  He is the highest paid player on the team.  And he leads the team in scoring.

But with Melo in the lineup this season, the Knicks are only 10-12.  And since Melo was injured on February 6, the Knicks have yet to lose.  That suggests that maybe Melo isn’t quite as good as people think (a suggestion that someone dared to make before Anthony came to New York).

Questioning the value of Carmelo Anthony seems to fly in the face of the numbers, or at least a number.  Across his career, Anthony has averaged nearly 25 points per game.  And for many fans, members of the media, and decision-makers in the NBA, that one number – points scored – captures much about a player’s value.   Published academic research for decades has indicated that scoring dominates the evaluation of basketball players by observers both within and outside the industry.

Given the dominance of scoring, players who want to be considered “stars” have a clear incentive.   To be a star you need to take as many shots as you can get away with.  Again, consider the case of Mr. Anthony. Throughout his career he has never failed to lead his team in field goal attempts per minute.  But when we consider his “true shooting percentage” – or a measure of shooting efficiency that considers efficiency from two-point range, three-point range, and the free throw line – Anthony has only finished among the top five on his team twice (he was 5th on the Denver Nuggets in 2007-08 and 3rd on the Nuggets in 2005-06).  Thus far this season, Melo ranks 10th – out of 14 players on the Knicks – in true shooting percentage.  So Melo isn’t a great scorer because he really is a great scorer.  His status as a scorer is really driven by his willingness to “take” shots.

Of course, some might argue that Anthony’s value is his amazing ability to “create” shots.  But a better word is “taking” shots, as in “Anthony takes shots from his teammates”.  When Melo isn’t in the line-up, his teammates – in either Denver or New York – have no trouble finding someone else to “take” shots.  In fact – as we reported in Stumbling on Wins – most of an NBA player’s shots are simply taken from his teammates.

Because players are evaluated in terms of scoring, though, NBA players have every incentive to “take” as many shots as possible.  Consequently, a basketball game isn’t just a competition between two teams.  It is also a competition between players on each team to take as many shots from their respective teammates.  Of course, focusing on your own shot may not be in the best interest of the team.  So that means coaches have to constantly remind their players keep passing the damn ball!

With respect to evaluating people in meetings and evaluating players on the basketball court we see a disconnect between actual competence and perceived competence.   And that disconnect creates problems.  The obvious solution is to simply stop evaluating people incorrectly.  In other words, these problems could be solved if we understood that scoring inefficiently in basketball doesn’t help a team win and just talking at meetings doesn’t mean you are competent.

Of course, this problem seems easier to solve in basketball.  We have an abundance of numbers to evaluate playing talent in the NBA.  And those numbers make it clear that Anthony (theNBAgeek presents Melo’s career Wins Produced) – and other inefficient scorers (i.e. like Allen Iverson) – aren’t really able to produce many wins.   If decision-makers can simp
ly learn to look past scoring totals, perhaps the incentives of players can be changed and coaches can find something else to scream about.

But solving the problem of endless meetings seems a bit harder.  People might get a bit upset if we started evaluating each comment to see if it actually indicated “competency” or if it just indicative of “pseudo-competency”.  In fact, if we had such a system people might be reluctant to speak at all.

Wait, maybe that would be okay.  If people were reluctant to talk maybe meetings would go much faster.  And then we could all stand-up and just leave!